Zin Mar Aung is a Burmese civil society and political activist and a former prisoner of conscience. She was born in 1976 in Rangoon.
While a university student in the 1990s, Zin Mar Aung became active in the opposition to Burma’s military government. In 1998, she was arrested at a peaceful protest rally for reading a poem and statement calling on the military government to respect the results of elections. She was detained and convicted before a military tribunal, which did not permit her to be represented by an attorney. Zin Mar Aung was sentenced to 28 years in prison. She spent 11 years as a political prisoner, nearly nine years of which was in solitary confinement. In 2009, she was suddenly released from captivity and she resumed her civil society activities.
Zin Mar Aung has founded a number of civil society groups dealing with democratic development, women’s empowerment, ethnic tolerance, and providing assistance to former prisoners of conscience. The Rainfall group encourages greater women’s participation in public life and the Yangon School of Political Science educates young Burmese about politics and democracy.
In 2012, she was recognized by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as a recipient of the annual “International Women of Courage” award.
The very first period of the prison life is the most terrible period for political prisoners because we weren’t allowed to meet our family, we didn’t get enough clothes, water and food. So this period is really terrible. But if we can overcome this period, we feel free – we feel stronger. Firstly, I was sent – three other political prisoners in the same cell. And they transferred me to the Mandalay prison; it is in the middle part of Burma. And they transferred me and they sent me to the small cells and almost one or two years of solitary confinement - very first of my prison life in Mandalay.
And later, they arrest more political prisoners and there’s no space in the prisons, and they put me, you know, in the small cell with some other cellmate. And later, they are gradually released, and the prison officer sent me to the solitary confinement in a small cell. About eight to nine years out of 11 years. So sometimes I like to live alone, but you know, I did not feel I’m lonely because I made up my mind and also I have enough time to reflect myself and also to do meditation. And so sometimes solitary confinement make me stronger enough.
After nine years, they did allow me to read books. So during these nine years, sometime I’m singing – so I like also music and songs and the poems and books. The thing is that if – they didn’t allow to read book as a – you know, the effective punishment for me because I really love reading books. So I try my options to overcome such kinds of long periods. So I’m trying to substitute my hobby with meditation and reciting the Buddhist discourse and trying to strengthen myself. Mindfulness – I tried to get mindfulness to overcome each day.
After six months they allowed my family to meet once a month because – actually, twice a month officially they allow, but they transfer me to very far away from my native town, Rangoon. And my family, you know, didn’t come regularly – twice a month. They visit me once a month. My family visit is not just only meeting in person, but also they bring some food and clothes and medicines. So what we need, they support me.
My family supported me. You know, the prison authority did not used to tell the prisoners when we were released or not. They just told me that you are now – you are released. And just pick up your stuff and go outside.
Burma, a Southeast Asian country with about 57 million people, is ruled by a military regime that seized power in 1962. Although the reformist National League for Democracy (NLD) won overwhelmingly in a 1990 election, the country’s military rulers ignored the results and arrested NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 “for her nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights.” The military government held a referendum on a new constitution in 2008 and a parliamentary election in 2010, neither of which was regarded by international observers as free or fair, and both of which resulted in overwhelming majorities for pro-government positions and candidates. The military regime has committed widespread and systematic human rights violations, including extrajudicial killing, torture, rape, and denial of freedom of expression, association, assembly, and religion.
Throughout its existence, the regime has been at war with a number of Burma’s ethnic minority groups. Ethnic minority voters overwhelmingly supported the NLD in the 1990 election, and after the suppression of the democracy movement several of these groups continued or resumed armed resistance to the de facto government. Although the government signed cease-fire agreements with several of these groups ostensibly granting them autonomy within their respective regions, the Burmese military has used a range of brutal techniques, including the killing of civilians, forced labor, rape, and the destruction of homes, crops, and villages, in cease-fire zones as well as in areas where there is still armed resistance.
In 2007, as on several previous occasions, there were mass demonstrations throughout the country demanding freedom and democracy. The 2007 demonstrations were led by Buddhist monks and eventually became known as the “Saffron Revolution” after the color of the monks’ robes. The armed forces brutally suppressed these demonstrations—estimates of the number of protestors killed range from 31 to several thousand—and intensified popular dissatisfaction with the government by the killing, beating, and public humiliation of monks.
The nominally civilian government resulting from the 2010 election has been widely regarded as a façade for continuing military rule. However, in October 2011, the government released 206 of Burma’s estimated 2,000 prisoners of conscience. The next month, the government announced that it would soon release all remaining political prisoners. The NLD, which had declined to participate in the 2010 election, registered to participate in the next election and announced that Aung San Suu Kyi would be among the NLD candidates.
Although the military regime announced in 1989 that it had changed the English name of the country from Burma to “Myanmar,” the United States government and other international supporters of democracy in Burma have generally continued to call the country Burma because this is the name preferred by Aung San Suu Kyi and other democracy advocates who won the 1990 election.